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This is about using the adjective kinetic (related to, exhibiting, motion, kinesis/AHDotEL; dynamic/energetic, a kinetic performer/MW) to describe someone in a composition with a contrasting element:

He was kinetic and yet totally in control.

Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Copeland, Jones

Seemingly not so common when used as an adjective with he/she and the verb to be (ngram). Kinetic is most definitely of Greek origin. Yet it feels (to me) it's more often used with inanimate objects, with science (kinetic energy etc.). Upon reading the quote it reminded me of someone being ecstatic, something going ballistic, or a magnetic/kinetic type of personality and such, because it rhymes I guess and I'm not clear as to what this means beyond the idea of motion. But someone per se being kinetic, is that emotion or motion? Is that moving or dancing?


  • Is that a typical, idiomatic and expressive use of kinetic in context?
  • What is the meaning of kinetic here, what does the expression mean, and what are the connotations the composition carries?
    • Is that a classical ballet term? Is there an ellipsis of some noun i.e. what is really kinetic here? I'm not clear on the context (the impression from the person walking up the stage or the performance or a state of being of the performer per se)
    • Had one said he was ballistic but on target, or bouncing off the walls yet always in control, or just that he had amazing movement coordination, how would that be different?
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    It's also unclear to me, and I'm a native speaker! – sumelic Mar 11 '16 at 1:31
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In physics, there are two types of energy potential and kinetic.

Potential energy is just that, something that has the possibility of happening. An apple hanging from a tree, a book on a table.

Once the apple or book falls from their perch, the potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy, it is realised as movement with possibly secondary vibrations or ripples which can be felt.

In your excerpt

He was kinetic and yet totally in control.

The author is using her vocabulary of movement to describe the appearance of Prince on stage, the energy he exuded, his movements, and his dancing. She is saying he was moving quickly and energetically, but was still in control. If you've ever seen Prince perform, you will know that he is always in control.

Also with performers, they can be described as being kinetic at an energetic level. Electric might be a good synonym where the performer takes on a buzzing/humming quality with their presence, like a high voltage transformer.

Ballistic would imply a singular, sudden unidirectional movement.
Bouncing off the walls would imply movement without intent.

Neither would be appropriate for describing how Prince moves and performs.

  • Thank you, very insightful. So would you say it's some metaphor then or is that a metonymic use? Why doesn't ngram yield much... is that a newer/modern extension of the meaning? Are you implying some specific register when you say the author is using her vocabulary? He was moving energetically : Is there any value in distinguishing between the performance and the man insofar as the term applies here? I do know the artist. I would say an electrifying yet controlled performance but I'm no native speaker and I'm curious, plus this poses a challenge for translating to FR. Thanks! – user16335 Mar 11 '16 at 2:13
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    The author is using her vocabulary as she is a dancer and dancers view movement differently than mere mortals, just as musicians hear music differently. They will see movement, when we may not, so my feeling is she saw something. Prince, the man, moves very slowly and deliberately from what I've been told by a friend who used to wait on him at a restaurant he frequented, he's also a picky eater. As you will know, Prince, the performer, is very stylised and can be electric. The description was about Prince's presence on stage. (cont'd) – Peter Mar 11 '16 at 3:01
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    There is an amusing story by Kevin Smith about Prince here – Peter Mar 11 '16 at 3:01
  • "[...] so my feeling is she saw something". I agree. I thought maybe this sort of use was frequent but not on ngram, but seeing the language you used both in the A. and here, which is more compatible with what I expect, I can see now that it's meaningful within a context, which includes something personal, some insight, rather than a very very typical idiom imho. Also did watch K. Smith, and that was a blast, thanks. Considering how unique the artist is, maybe a unique way of describing his demeanor or presence on stage etc. is fitting. Thank you! – user16335 Mar 11 '16 at 4:54

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